Inequalities in Access to Academic Spaces
Geography and You|Issue 142 - 143, 2020
Experiences of students from the socially excluded groups in higher education in India
Nidhi S Sabharwal

India has viewed equity in higher education as a foundation for inclusive growth. As a result of strong affirmative action policies such as the reservation of seats in higher education institutions, relaxation of admission criteria and financial support, access to higher education has improved for the students from disadvantaged social backgrounds over the years. However, after entering these institutions, equal and non-discriminatory access to opportunities remains limited. The findings from a large-scale, multi-institutional, mixed-method study show that higher education institutions are largely under-prepared to respond to diverse learners.

Equity in access to higher education is widely considered in the literature to promote inclusive growth, reduce intergroup economic inequalities and foster conditions for sustainable development (UNESCO 2016). Given the earning advantages associated with higher education as compared to the less educated, gaining higher education can lead to better employment, wealth and well being outcomes. India recognised the important role that education played in economic and social well-being of the people and clearly laid down the role of higher education in national development.

With a gross enrolment ratio (GER) of 25.2 per cent and around 35.7 million students (MHRD 2017), India is in a ‘stage of massification’ with the second largest higher education system in the world. On the one hand, rising social demand, increasing school participation rates and expanding supply conditions have led to the expansion of the higher education system in India. On the other, affirmative action policies in the form of reservation of seats, relaxation of admission criteria and financial support have resulted in providing access to the marginalised groups and promoting social diversity in the student body.

The participation of students from the disadvantaged socio-economic groups, such as, the scheduled castes (former untouchables in the caste hierarchy), other backward classes (other lower castes), the scheduled tribes and women, which were previously under-represented in higher education, has improved. For example, over a period of 20 years, the gross enrolment ratio for the scheduled castes (SCs) group improved from 4.8 in 1995 to 22.3 per cent in 2014. Similarly, for the scheduled tribes (STs), the gross enrolment ratio improved from 3.4 in 1995 to 17 per cent in 2014 (Thorat and Khan 2018). Thus, unlike the elite stage where only the privileged few entered higher education campuses, massification of the sector has widened the opportunities for diverse student groups for entry into higher education campuses.

Based on the empirical evidence from a large-scale study, this paper argues that while access to higher education has improved for the disadvantaged socio-economic groups, equal and non-discriminatory access to opportunities for their academic success after their entry into higher education institutions remains limited (Sabharwal and Malish 2016). The evidence shows that the higher education institutions remain under prepared to respond to diverse learners present on their campuses. And hence, the overall improvement in access to higher education has been overshadowed by new forms of inequalities with higher education serving as an institution of social reproduction of inherited privileges.

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